Valuation changes draw 72 protests

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■ COVID protocol makes property reviews challenging

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A total of 72 Hamilton County residents protested their property valuation statements this year, though the county assessor said the review process completed last week went well, despite challenges created by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Pat Sandberg predicted in May that there would likely be protests filed when property owners learned that all dwellings and structures in Aurora had been increased in value by 8 percent. That change, ordered by the Nebraska Tax Equalization and Review Commission, was prompted by an Aurora real estate market which Sandberg earlier described as “a prairie fire.”

Protests were due June 30, when Sandberg was joined by her deputy as well as members of the county board to begin reviewing each and every contested property. Final visits were made Thursday, with the county’s Board of Equalization scheduled to review each case at its July 20 meeting.

“I encourage people to come down here first then file a protest if we’ve got something wrong,” she explained. “I want their record right, and so do they.”

Asked if some of the protests were in response to the mandated 8 percent increase in Aurora, Sandberg said some but certainly not all were based on that concern.

“Some people came in and when we explained that it was citywide on just the improvements, not the lots, then when they saw the sales book some realized that they could probably get that for their house,” Sandberg said. “Some are overvalued, some are undervalued, when you have to do an 8 percent increase. The Aurora housing market has slowed down some, but it is still good.

“Everything we do in regards to valuation of properties is market driven,” she added. “We study and review sales all year long of properties, whether it be ag, commercial or residential, countywide.”

On a residential property, the county assessor said she encourages people to seek a fee appraisal, which is much more detailed than the mass appraisal approach her staff uses.

“A fee appraiser actually goes through the house and it is a lot more detailed than what I do,” she explained. “A lot of weight is put on the value that’s turned in on a current appraisal. A lot of times what I will do is match that appraisal.

“If there is not an appraisal or a recent purchase price, we look at that and we also try to find really good comparable sales to see if they are selling for about the same price per square foot,” she added. “We want to put in a lot of time because we want it right.”

Complicating the process this year was a global pandemic which prevented Sandberg and her crew from making the onsite inspections they normally would.

“Due to COVID this year we did not go inside any dwelling,” she reported. “We encouraged photos to be emailed to us and if the homeowner could be home we would meet there and stay our six feet apart and visit at length. Normally we could walk through the house and look at the ceiling and see if there were cracks in the walls. This year it was based on the testimony of the property owner, or if there were any pictures they could supply.”

With the final inspections now completed, Sandberg will complete the paperwork documenting her findings and new value recommendations. Each will be reviewed at the July 20 meeting, after which protestors are to be informed of the decision by mail within seven days.

As a comparison, Sandberg noted that this year’s total of 72 protests was higher than some years but still lower than the 120 filed in 2018. That was the year, she recalled, when lots were revalued in several area housing subdivisions, prompting numerous complaints. Thirty-six protests were filed last year, 26 in 2017 and 40 in 2016.

“The process went very smooth this year, even with the COVID,” she concluded. “I enjoy working with my constituents. I hope people know they can come up and visit with us any time. It’s all a matter of public record.”

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